Last updated on April 15th, 2018 at 09:54 pm

It doesn’t get much better than hitting the water in a kayak for a day of fun and adventure. Depending on your approach to kayaking, it can be relaxing, exhilarating, or just a good way to get some exercise and fresh air.

Finding a kayak that suits your paddling style can be a challenging task if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That’s why this guide will discuss some of the key points to consider when choosing a kayak and outline the different types of kayaks and who they’re best for.

Towards the end of the guide, you’ll find our top picks for best kayak based on several different categories.

best kayaks

Quick Answer: The Best Kayaks

  1. Best sit-on-top kayak: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120
  2. Best recreational kayak: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
  3. Best touring kayak: Riot Edge 14.5 LV
  4. Best inflatable kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame AE1012-R
  5. Best fishing kayak: Feelfree Lure 10
  6. Best tandem kayak: Vibe Yellowfin 130T

The first part of this guide is full of advice on what to look for in a kayak. If you already know what you’re after, you can jump ahead to the reviews section for the top picks.

Paddling Conditions

Where will you be paddling?

Different types of kayaks are designed with certain paddling conditions in mind. Before picking up a kayak, it’s a good idea to clarify the type of water you’re likely to be paddling in so you can hone in on the right kind of kayak.

Type of Water

Lakes – Small to medium sized lakes tend to be more sheltered from wind. Recreational kayaks typically do well in these environments as long as you’re not paddling too far. If you’re paddling large lakes that have the potential for waves or you’re paddling longer distances, you may want to consider a more efficient touring kayak.

Rivers – Large slow moving rivers present similar paddling conditions to a lake but having a kayak that is a bit more maneuverable is often an advantage. If the rivers in your area are narrow and have a lot of twists and turns, aim for a shorter recreational kayak for extra maneuverability.

Coastal – Conditions along coastal waters are typically more exposed to wind, waves, and currents. Recreational kayaks aren’t as well suited to coastal paddling so you’re typically better off with a touring kayak. The exception is if you want to play in the surf – sit-on-top recreational kayaks can be a great choice for surf kayaking.

Water Temperature

It may not seem like an important consideration, but the temperature of the water you’re paddling in can play an important role in the type of kayak you choose. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Is the water temperature warm or cold?
  • Would you be uncomfortable if you got wet?
  • Do you plan to paddle in the off season when temperatures are colder?

Sit-in kayaks are generally better for cooler water temperatures or if you just don’t want to get wet. They protect the lower half of your body from the elements and will help you stay warmer.

Sit-on-top kayaks are great for warmer water temperatures. Your whole body is exposed to the wind and you’re basically guaranteed to get wet when paddling one, so they’re not as comfortable in colder temperatures.

Performance vs Stability

Performance vs Stability

Besides considering the conditions you’ll be paddling in, you’ll also want to decide what’s more important to you – performance or stability.

Due to the nature of kayak design, there’s a bit of a tradeoff between the two. You can find kayaks that perform well and have decent stability, but you won’t find kayaks that are both high-performance and very stable.

Stable kayaks tend to be better for:

  • Casual paddling
  • New paddlers and families
  • Swimming, diving, fishing

Performance-focused kayaks are better for:

  • Paddling longer distances
  • Intermediate level paddlers
  • Rougher paddling conditions

Whether a kayak is more focused on performance or stability mostly comes down to the shape of the kayak.

Performance – Kayaks that are longer and narrower tend to be faster and track straighter through the water than shorter and wider boats.

Stability – If you’d prefer a more stable kayak, look for one that’s on the wider side. The additional width will help you feel more secure and make it harder to accidentally tip the kayak.

Types of Kayaks

Types of Kayaks

Now that you’ve got a good idea what you’re looking for in a kayak, here’s an overview of the different types you’ll find.

Not every kayak falls neatly into one of these categories but each category has some defining characteristics that generally hold true.

Sit-on-top vs Sit-in

The first thing you’ll want to nail down is whether you’re better off with a sit-on-top kayak or a sit-in kayak.

Sit on top vs sit in kayaks

Sit-ins are the traditional style that most people think of when they think of a kayak. Sit-on-tops are a newer design that have been growing in popularity due to their ease of use.

Sit-on-top vs Sit-in kayaks

Sit on top

  • More stable
  • Easier to get on and off of (even in the water)
  • Self bailing and easy capsize recovery
  • Heavier

Ideal for: Casual use in warm water. Fishing, swimming, and diving. Families.

Not suited for: Cold or rough paddling conditions. Long distance trips.

Sit in

  • Shelters paddlers from cold water and wind
  • Faster
  • More control while paddling
  • Harder capsize recovery

Ideal for: Cooler water. Paddlers who don’t want to get wet. Paddlers who value performance.

Not suited for: Diving and swimming. Paddlers that find cockpits too restricting.

Sit-on-top

User friendly is probably the most concise way to describe sit-on-top kayaks.

Sit-on-top kayaks are usually wider than sit-ins, making them more stable. They’re also easier to get on and off of – even if you’re in the water – because there’s no cockpit to squeeze into. This makes them ideal for taking a quick dip while paddling.

They’re also self bailing, which means you won’t have to manually pump out water that gets inside the boat like you would for a traditional sit-in kayak. This is achieved through the use of ‘scupper holes’ in the bottom of the kayak that allows water to drain out. Recovering from a capsize is also relatively easy; all you have to do is flip it over and scramble back on.

One of the major drawbacks of sit-on-tops is that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get wet, so they’re best for warmer conditions. They also tend to be slower than sit-ins and typically aren’t the best choice for long distance paddling.

Read our Sit-on-top Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Sit-in

Sit-in kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, from stable recreational styles that are ideal for casual flat water paddling to touring models that are quick and ideal for covering longer distances.

Regardless of whether they’re built for speed or stability, the cockpit of a sit-in kayak shelters paddlers from the wind and water. This means they’re great for both warm and cold weather paddling.

Most sit-in kayaks also have the ability to be used with a spray skirt that prevents water from splashing into the cockpit, so they’re generally better able to handle rougher conditions.

Sit-ins also typically offer paddlers better speed and control compared to sit-on-tops. Besides being more streamlines, sit-ins allow you to brace your thighs against the inside of the cockpit, which offers better control and more efficient paddling.

The only major downside to a sit-in is that capsize recovery isn’t as simple as in a sit-on-top kayak. You should be familiar with self rescue techniques if you plan to head into more challenging conditions or will be further than swimming distance from shore.

Video Lesson:



Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are some of the most affordable kayaks you’ll find and come in both sit-in and sit-on-top varieties. They’re typically about 9-12 feet in length and are wider than other kayaks, which means they’re very stable and great for beginners.

Recreational kayaks are ideal for shorter trips in calm waters like lakes, slow-moving rivers, and sheltered coastal areas. They don’t have much onboard storage space and aren’t the most efficient boats, so you may want to look into a touring kayak if you want to paddle over longer distances or for overnight camping trips.

Read our Recreational Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are built primarily for efficiency and speed so they’re ideally suited to covering longer distances and for intermediate level paddlers that are willing to sacrifice some stability for increased performance.

They typically run between 12-16 feet in length and 23-27 inches in width. The streamlined shape helps them cut through the water and track in a straight line. Another added bonus is that the longer hull allows for more onboard storage space so touring kayaks work well for overnight and multi-day excursions.

They’re definitely a step up in price compared to recreational kayaks but are more capable, so you’ll be able to use them in a wider range of paddling conditions.

Read our Touring Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Inflatable Kayaks

Storing and transporting a kayak can be a real issue for paddlers that don’t have a lot of extra space. If you’re concerned about the logistics of owning a kayak, an inflatable might be a great alternative. Inflatable kayaks can be packed down to a fraction of their inflated size and most will easily fit into the trunk of a car or into a closet for storage.

Inflatables generally won’t perform as well as a hard-shell kayak, so you’ll have to weigh your priorities and decide whether the convenience and portability of an inflatable is worth a decrease in performance.

They’re also relatively affordable compared to hard-shell kayaks and tend to be fairly stable on the water. Durability can be an issue with lower quality inflatables but medium to high end inflatables can be surprisingly tough.

Read our Inflatable Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Fishing Kayaks

Kayak fishing is a fast growing segment of the kayaking market and with good reason. Kayaks offer anglers access areas they wouldn’t be able to get to from land and are significantly more affordable and less hassle than owning a boat.

Modern fishing kayaks are designed for excellent stability and comfort for longer days on the water. They typically include multiple rod holders, lots of storage space for your gear and catch, and accessory tracks for customizing your rig with fish finders and other add ons.

There is a huge selection of fishing kayaks to choose from. They range from simple models that are essentially regular kayaks with an included rod holder to serious fishing rigs that are decked out with tons of angler-friendly features that’ll set you back several thousand dollars.

Read our Fishing Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Tandem Kayaks

Each type of kayak above can also be found in tandem versions that will allow two (and sometimes three) paddlers to paddle a single kayak.

Tandem kayaks can be a great way to hit the water with family or friends. The close proximity makes for easier conversation while you’re paddling and can be a great bonding experience. If you haven’t paddled a tandem before, it’ll take a few minutes to get into the groove of synchronizing your paddling. But once you get the hang of it, tandems can often out-paddle smaller solo kayaks.

If you want to do a mix of solo and tandem paddling, keep an eye out for tandem kayaks that are convertible. They allow you to remove and reposition the seats so the kayak can be paddled by yourself or with a partner.

Read our Tandem Kayak Buyer’s Guide
Kayak Reviews

Best Kayak Reviews

Best Sit-on-top Kayak

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120

Wilderness Systems 9750215142 Tarpon 120 Kayaks, Galaxy, 12'

Specifications:

Length: 12’ 3″

Width: 30”

Weight: 63 lbs

Weight capacity: 350 lbs

Features:

  • Fully adjustable seat
  • Two storage hatches
  • Rear tank well with bungee tie downs
  • Adjustable footrests
  • Accessory track

 from $959.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 08:24 – Details)

Review

The Tarpon 120 is a versatile sit-on-top kayak that offers solid all around performance, comfort, and stability. Unlike some sit-on-tops that can be a bit bare-bones, the Tarpon has a number of features that’ll ensure you don’t outgrow it too quickly.

One of the Tarpon’s key features is its exceptionally comfortable seat. It’s well padded with lots of adjustment points, which is great for longer days on the water or if you’re concerned about lower back comfort.

The track-adjustable footrests are an uncommon but welcomed addition for a sit-on-top kayak and, when combined with it’s high quality seat, make the Tarpon one of the most comfortable sit on top kayaks you’ll find in its price range.

If you’ll be on the water for an extended period, there’s plenty of onboard storage space for your gear. The Tarpon has two separate sealed storage hatches as well as a large rear tank well with adjustable bungee tie downs.

The Tarpon also does well as a fishing rig and has a built-in accessory track so you can customize it with rod holders and other fishing gear if you want to try your luck.

If you want versatile kayak that has the features to ensure you won’t outgrow it for many years, the Tarpon 120 could be a great fit. 

Best Recreational Kayak

Wilderness Systems Pungo 120

Wilderness Systems 9730505054 PUNGO 120 Kayaks, Mango, 12'

Specifications:

Length: 12’

Width: 29”

Weight: 49 lbs

Weight capacity: 325 lbs

Features:

  • Fully adjustable seat
  • Storage hatch
  • Removable front storage console
  • Padded thigh braces
  • Adjustable footrests

  from $836.10

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 08:24 – Details)

Review

The Pungo 120 strikes a great balance between performance, stability, and comfort. It’s 12-foot length and narrower hull helps it to glide through the water in a straight line with greater efficiency than many other recreational kayaks. You can also use a spray skirt with it, giving it a bit of an edge when it comes to coastal and cold water paddling.

The Pungo also has one of the most comfortable seats you’ll find in a recreational kayak. The seat has honeycomb-ventilation and is fully adjustable with multiple adjustment points to help you get the perfect fit for your body. This can make it a good choice if you’re concerned about lower back comfort or will be on the water for several hours at a time.

The track-adjustable footrests and padded knee braces maximize the paddler’s comfort and help you extend your time out on the water.

It also has a rear storage hatch and removable front storage console to give you a place to stash your essentials. There’s probably even enough space for overnight camping gear between the storage hatch and deck bungees, depending on how heavy or light you pack.

The Pungo 120 is a great all-around kayak and is well suited to a variety of paddling conditions. If your a beginning paddler, it’s a kayak that’ll grow with you as your progress to a more intermediate level. It’s only real drawback is its price; it’s definitely near the upper end of the price spectrum.

Best Touring Kayak

Riot Edge 14.5 LV

Riot Kayaks Edge 14.5 LV Flatwater Day Touring Kayak (Yellow/Orange, 14.5-Feet)

Specifications:

Length: 14’ 6”

Width: 22.5”

Weight: 60 lbs

Weight capacity: 325 lbs

Features:

  • Adjustable seat
  • Two storage hatches
  • Deck bungees
  • Deck perimeter lines
  • Padded thigh braces
  • Adjustable footrests
  • Rudder

 $999.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 08:24 – Details)

Review

The Riot Edge 14.5 is a smaller touring kayak with a sleek and efficient shape that’s well suited to covering longer distances.

It has two large storage hatches and both front and rear deck bungees, which gives you plenty of options for stowing gear and should allow you to pack enough gear for weekend trips.

The just over 14-foot hull means that it’s at home in coastal waters but isn’t so long that it’s difficult to maneuver on winding rivers. The included rudder system further improves its sea-worthiness and chops for paddling in less than idea conditions.

The Edge 14.5 does have a slightly narrower hull, so it’s not quite as stable as some of the other options. Though, Riot uses a hard chine along the hull to help improve stability and keep the Edge 14.5 from feeling ‘tippy’ despite its narrower width.

The Edge 14.5 offers some serious value and manages to pack in some features that are normally reserved for high end sea kayaks at an entry-level price.

Best Inflatable Kayak

Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame AE1012-R

Advanced Elements AE1012-R AdvancedFrame Inflatable Kayak

Specifications:

Length: 10’ 5”

Width: 32”

Weight: 36 lbs

Weight Capacity: 300 lbs

Deflated size: 30” x 17” x 10”

Features:

  • Aluminum ribs
  • Adjustable seat
  • Skeg
  • Deck bungees
  • Inflatable coaming for use with spray skirt

  $502.49

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 08:20 – Details)

Review

If you’re looking for something extra portable but with the performance of a hard-shell kayak, it’s hard to beat the AdvancedFrame inflatable kayak from Advanced Elements.

Weighing in at a dainty 36 pounds and folding down to 30” x 17” x 10” means the AdvancedFrame will easily fit into the trunk of even a small car with room to spare for gear. And when you’re not using it, you can stash it away in a closet, which makes it a great choice for paddlers that are short on storage space.

If you’ve ever paddled in a basic inflatable kayak, you’ll know that many of them suffer from poor performance and tend to swerve from side to side as you paddle through the water. To remedy this, the AdvancedFrame has built-in aluminum ribs that help it cut through the water and perform more like a hard-shell than an inflatable kayak.

It still won’t be able to outperform higher end hard-shells, but it’ll give some of the more basic ones a good run for their money.

And if you’re worried about durability, the AdvancedFrame uses three layers of material to provide extra protection against punctures. It’s still not quite as tough as a hard-shell but it can definitely take some serious abuse.

The AdvancedFrame opens up a whole new world of paddling possibilities for paddlers that have limited storage space or want to be able to hike in to a paddling location.

Best Fishing Kayak

Feelfree Lure 10

Feel Free Lure 10 Fishing Kayak 2016 - 10ft/Winter Camo

Features:

  • Padded standing platform
  • Fully adjustable seat
  • Large rear tank well with bungee tie downs
  • Front dry storage hatch
  • Center console
  • Adjustable footrests
  • Two flush mount rod holders
  • Accessory track
  • Keel wheel

Specifications:

Length: 10’

Width: 36”

Weight: 69 lbs

Weight capacity: 375 lbs

 $849.15

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-20 at 17:14 – Details)

Review

The Feelfree Lure 10 is an incredibly stable fishing kayak. In fact, it’s so stable that you can even stand up and fish. It packs in some solid angler-friendly features and is designed for excellent comfort whether you’re fishing or just doing some recreational paddling.

The Lure 10 comes with the features that are standard for most fishing kayaks – lots of storage space, two rod holders, and an accessory track for customizing your rig. Where it really distinguishes itself, though, are the design touches that make it a great stand up fishing kayak.

The deck is wide, flat, and open so there’s plenty of room for standing. The standing area is also padded and textured for extra comfort and better footing.

The Gravity seat that comes standard with the Lure 10 is another key feature – it has great support and padding and is highly adjustable so you can get just the right fit.

The Lure 10 isn’t going to win you any races but that’s the compromise you make for the exceptional stability that makes it such a solid stand up fishing platform.

If you want something that performs a bit better over longer distances, consider the Lure 11.5. It has all the features of the Lure 10 but is a bit longer and can accept an optional rudder system.

Best Tandem Kayak

Vibe Yellowfin 130T

Vibe Kayaks Yellowfin 130T 13 Foot Tandem Angler and Recreational Two Person Sit On Top Fishing Kayak with 2 Paddles and 2 Hero Comfort Seats and Flush Rod Holders and Built in Storage Included (5)

Specifications:

Length: 13′

Width: 35”

Weight: 80 lbs

Weight capacity: 500 lbs

Features:

  • Convertible
  • Adjustable folding seats
  • Two storage hatches
  • Rear tank well with bungee tie downs
  • Adjustable footrests
  • Two paddle holders
  • Two flush mount rod holders
  • Four mounting points for accessories
  • Two paddles
  • Rudder-ready

 from $1,306.99

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-07-21 at 02:24 – Details)

Review

The Yellowfin 130T is a versatile sit-on-top that packs in a number of thoughtful features and offers a great balance between performance, comfort, and stability. It’s a convertible kayak so you’ll be able to paddle it tandem or solo and there’s even enough room to fit a small child between the two main seats.

The 35-inch wide hull means the Yellowfin is nice and stable and will help you feel secure while you’re on the water. This makes it a popular choice for introducing newer paddlers to kayaking.

Despite it’s width, the Yellowfin handles well in the water. It’s not the fastest tandem kayak around but it can certainly hold its own, particularly compared to other sit-on-tops. And if you plan to do a lot of coastal paddling, there are factory installed mounting points for an optional rudder that you can add down the road.

It comes with two comfortable ‘lawn chair’ style seats that offer good support and are adjustable for all-day comfort. The seats actually raise you off the deck of the kayak by a few inches, which helps prevent your butt from getting wet – a definite plus.

There’s plenty of onboard storage space with two dry storage hatches and a large rear and small forward tank wells. A nice touch are the removable mesh inserts for the storage hatches that prevent smaller items from moving around inside the kayak.

The Yellowfin also has track-adjustable foot pedals, which offer better comfort and control than the standard molded footrests that most sit-on-top kayaks have.

All in all, the Yellowfin 130T’s performance and wide range of quality features means it should provide many years of enjoyable paddling in a variety of different conditions. Its only real downside is its weight – at 80 pounds it’s definitely on the heavier side.

Wrapping Up

Choosing a kayak can be a daunting task if you’re just getting into the sport and not quite sure what to look for. Hopefully, you’ve found this guide helpful and have the confidence to go out and find a kayak that fits your needs. Happy paddling!

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